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Monday, July 27, 2015

A Browse Through My Cyber Bookshelves

We all do it. You buy a book and start reading it and then get distracted, sometimes by Life, sometimes by another book toy. And that has become a lot more frequent since the WWW made it possible to just download the thing RIGHT NOW instead of waiting till you get to a bookshop. That's especially true of me - and now I have no more room for paper books on my bulging shelves, I think, "Just this one more ebook..."

So my cyber bookshelves are crammed with books I've read from cover to cover and the unfinished gems just waiting for me to return. So this evening I've opened up some of these neglected treasures. I've  read Robert E Howard's first sale to Weird Tales (he was only eighteen). A real eye opener about the pulp era! I'm a huge fan of this author, whose Conan stories and King Kull tales  I adore, as I do Bran Mac Morn and Red Sonia and ... Well, he pretty much invented swords and sorcery! So when I say that if I got his first story, "Spear And Fang", in my ASIM slush, I would have rejected it, trust me - it's terrible!  Probably I would have said no kindly, because it is so very obviously by a teenage boy, but rejected it anyway. It's so bad it's good.

Just as well he sent his first story to Weird Tales instead of ASIM, because he got better very quickly. In case you're interested, the anthology is called Shadow Kingdoms, volume 1 of a series featuring his early short fiction, in order of publication, but you can get some of his work free on Project Gutenberg; I have The Hour Of The Dragon, his only Conan novel from Gutenberg. I first read that in print as Conan The Conqueror, edited by Lin Carter. It's a nice vision of Conan in middle age, wincing as he finds there are some things he can't do quite as easily as he used to. He does some things well enough, though; there's a sweet young thing who fell in love with him at first sight as he rode his horse past her and now she is there to help him escape from the dungeon of the week. If you're a Conan fan, yes, it's Zenobia! If you aren't, yet, no further spoilers.

And ooh, I'd forgotten about another Gutenberg treasure, a collection of classic crime fiction by Rudyard Kipling, Wilkie Collins, even some Conan Doyle... Well, the Conan Doyle you can find easily enough elsewhere, but I'd never read the Kipling before, though it doesn't surprise me; he wrote a wide variety of stuff and I have some of his horror fiction both in print and ebook. It's great stuff. This collection is under The Lock And Key Library.

And oh, I have too long neglected some of the short fiction of the likes of Murray Leinster and Henry Kuttner, which came with the original covers of the SF magazines in which they appeared! I found those in Gutenberg too. Amazing how much of the early fiction of big name SF writers you can find in Gutenberg!

Well, I'd better get back and finish reading these gems...

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Re-discovering Alison Goodman

I get a lot of ebooks, including anthologies, which tend to be cheap and feature my favourite writers. I was looking on my cyber bookshelves for Charles De Lint material (to my delight, I've just discovered that a lot more of his work has come out in ebook since I last looked) when I found the anthology Firebirds Rising, which I had bought and forgotten about, though I had started reading it. A great little anthology, by the way, with some big names in it, not surprising since the editor commissioned the stories. I can't recall the price and iBooks doesn't tell you once you've bought it, but I wouldn't have spent a lot of money on an anthology unless it was by one author I loved already; mostly, I use these to sample work by authors I'm not familiar with,  before buying their books.

When I selected the book on my shelves, it turned to the story I was reading when I last opened the book and it wasn't Charles De Lint's contribution, but Alison Goodman's.

Alison, for those who don't know her, is a Melbourne writer, who has done mostly fantasy and some crime fiction. When I first met her, she had done one novel, Singing The Dogstar Blues. We both had a book out that year - mine was my book on astronauts from Omnibus(just closed down, alas!). I couldn't resist travelling to Canberra, on invitation, to hear the announcement of the CBCA shortlist at the home of the Governor General. Neither of us made it on to the list, alas. That was the year when I was chatting with one of the judges, who said, "Oh, yes, an entertaining book, well written, kids will love it, but that's not one of our criteria." Their response to Alison's book, which I mentioned, was pretty much the same(with a shrug included).

We shared our disappointment. Alison thought she had missed out on the shortlist because her book was SF. I suggested that no, it wasn't that - they did occasionally put SF on the shortlist - - but that it was funny. They didn't, at the time, care for funny books. "Not enough psychological depth," I was told by a judge whom I won't name, but who was well known in children's fiction fandom. (When I pointed out that the very funny Hating Alison Ashley, fairly new at the time, had plenty of psychological depth, she said that yes, it was good, but it was a paperback!)

Anyway, I started reading this story in Firebirds Rising and suddenly realised that it was a direct sequel to Singing The Dogstar Blues! It has been such a long time since I read the book, I'd forgotten everything about it except that it was funny, it was set in a future Melbourne, at a future Melbourne University, that there was music involved and adventure. I don't have it any more, as I donated it to my library(probably gone by now, since the senior campus library was closed down), but I can always get the ebook now.

The short story started to bring it all back. The heroine, Joss, is a first year student at Melbourne Uni, specialising in music and hoping to watch important events in music history when she does some time travel. She has a partner/room mate, Mav, the only alien student on Earth, of the Chorian race, who are born as twins, who are connected telepathically all their lives, though Mav has lost his twin and is trying to connect with Joss instead. In this story, he wants to be connected with Joss when she has a "mating ritual", something she is not happy about. And there are troubles between the "comp" kids, genetically engineered through appropriate donations, and the "noncomp" who aren't, but who all seem to be wealthy enough not to need to be engineered for intelligence or physical ability, because they have plenty of money already, without having to work for it.

It was an unexpected treat and, on my first trip outside the house in a few days(I've been lying in the warm, recovering from a nasty cold since Thursday), to get some groceries, I settled down to read it over lunch in my local bakery.

An enjoyable read on a cold Melbourne winter day! Now to read the rest of the stories in the anthology...

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Stella Prize Schools Program: A Guest Post By Bec Kavanagh

Welcome again to Bec, who answered some questions about the Stella Prize Schools Program the other day and who now has kindly written us a guest post about it. An award and program well worth supporting! Take it away, Bec.


Young adults need to read books about women and girls written by women and girls.

I can’t tell you the number of female author friends I have who have told me stories about changes they’ve had to make to their books to give them wider appeal. The suggestions range from using their initials instead of their first names on the cover (because a woman’s name won’t sell ‘boyish’ books) to changing the cover illustration to something more or less masculine depending on the perceived audience. I’ve also heard of boy characters being included to make sure boys stay engaged, or a love interest is added or emphasised because that’s what girls want. But what if they don’t? What if these prescriptive gender assumptions are in fact doing both boys and girls a great disservice by slamming shut the very important doorways into the lives of others that books offer?

The problem is not that women aren’t writing. It’s just that they’re not getting noticed. Or maybe it’s that they’re not getting noticed by enough people. Or maybe it’s that they’re not getting noticed in a way that affords them the same relevance as books written by male (generally white, often long dead) authors. There’s a whole other argument here about YA in general not getting taken seriously, but what if that’s just a further consequence of the gender bias found in the adult world of literature? If, as adults, we find that women’s stories are considered less relevant, less intelligent, less universal – and underrepresented in literary prizes and on the books pages – then it follows that that attitude is amplified in a category of writing dominated by women.

We need more books by Australian women on school booklists. We need more books by Australian women on school booklists because only by giving them more space can we truly begin to show what it is to be a girl growing up in Australia today. We need books by women living on farms, in cities, living corporate lifestyles, bohemian lifestyles or farming free-range cattle. We need books that show women with disabilities, Indigenous women, refugee women, women exploring their sexuality, women whose cultural background makes their experience different from other women. Why do we need them? Because young women from all kinds of backgrounds need to see themselves represented in literature, and they need to feel that their voices will be heard in the discussions about our future. We need them because it’s as important for young men to read stories about young women as it is for young women to read them about young men. Books are a conversation that sets the tone for our future, so let’s make sure everyone gets heard.

The Stella Prize Schools Program was established in 2014, and I’m lucky enough to have been on board from early on. I’ve seen schools begin really important conversations about the kinds of texts that they’re putting on booklists, and whose voices are being sidelined. And I’ve spoken to wonderful, inspiring young people who are passionate about change. I’ve had books recommended to me by young women who are deeply affected by something they’ve read. I’ve seen students set up clubs to create an open space where diverse stories can be shared. I’ve also had students tell me they feel ‘betrayed’ when gendered marketing has turned them away from a book. Change is happening, but that doesn’t mean we should stop. As the Stella Prize Schools Program pushes through its second year and on towards its third, I look forward to seeing more Australian women on booklists and in schools running talks and workshops. I look forward to running Professional Development sessions with more schools to make these changes happen. And I look forward to seeing a generation of girls and boys evolve who are not limited by their gender.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Stella Prize Schools Program - An Interview With Bec Kavanagh!

 Earlier this year, we had a wonderful guest speaker, Alice Pung, compliments of the Stella Prize Schools Program. I had spoken to Ambelin Kwaymullina at Continuum, the annual Melbourne SF convention, telling her about my disadvantaged school, and she let me know that the Stellas were setting up a schools program and might be willing to help us out with a guest speaker, something we can't afford ourselves. They were, bless them, and I invited the Schools Coordinator, Bec Kavanagh, to talk about the program here, because I think they're doing a fabulous job in promoting women's writing and getting children interested. Today I am posting some interview questions I sent Bec, along with her photo. Tomorrow there will be a guest post from Bec, with more details. Enjoy!


If you'd like to learn more about the Stella Prize Schools Program, follow this link: 




                                           
   

                                            
       

How did the Stella Prize Schools Program Begin?

The Stella Prize Schools Program was established to address the gender imbalance on school booklists and to start discussions about the way the unconscious gender bias impacts young readers. The Schools Program launched in Victoria in September 2014, and we launch this year in NSW on the 9th of September at the Sydney Story Factory.  
What  are some of the things Stella Prize Schools Program does? And what is your particular job?
The Stella Prize Schools Program is working to change the gender imbalance on booklists by offering support to teachers through free PDs, teachers’ notes and reading questions in our regularly updated Education Resource Kit, and to promote books by Australian women through discussions with schools and other educational bodies. I have worked with the Schools Program from its inception, creating the Education Resource Kit and leading school visits and professional development sessions in schools. 

How have schools responded to this program so far?

So far we’ve had incredibly positive feedback from schools – one teacher who took part in a free PD session commented that it ‘injected a lot of understanding and enthusiasm into the staff who attended’. The Schools Program certainly seems to be starting those incredibly important discussions about how and why particular books are studied more often than others, and the ways in which young people’s perceptions of themselves and the world are affected by the books they study.

Do you mostly work at girls' schools or equally at co-ed schools? 

I’ve run sessions at both co-ed schools and girls’ schools. We want to work with all schools (including boys’ schools), as gender bias is something that affects all young people.


What response do you get from boys? 

Primarily, the sessions I run are with staff, and I’ve had some really wonderful responses from male staff members about the changes they’d like to make in their classrooms. One comment that sticks with me came from a boy who attended the ‘Girls’ Books vs Boys’ Books’ session at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2014. We were talking about gendered marketing, and the way covers are often designed specifically to appeal to either girls or boys. We showed the students a particular book, and asked if they would read it based on the cover. Many of the boys in the audience said ‘no’. We then described the contents of the book and went into more detail about the plot and the themes – many of the boys who had said ‘no’ at first changed their answer to ‘yes’. We asked the audience how they felt about being ‘shut out’ of a book by gendered marketing, and one of the boys responded, ‘I feel betrayed’. I thought that was the most succinct and powerful response. We’re betraying all young people by telling them that who they are – what stories they should be engaging with and even what they can achieve – is defined by their gender. 

It has often been said that girls will read anything, while boys prefer to read books with male characters - how true have you found this? (For the record, it hasn't been completely true at my school, where the main fans of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials and even Tamora Pierce's novels, all with strong female leads, have been boys)

In my experience visiting schools and talking to teens about books, it’s a mixed bag. I think that teens aren’t actually bothered by whether the author or protagonist is the same gender as them or not. A more significant deciding factor is the way books are presented. The designs of many genre books are fairly gender neutral, but in realistic YA there is more of a boys books/girls books divide, which is largely derived from how they are marketed. That’s a real hurdle to consider when we’re encouraging teenagers to read widely.

Are you thinking of having a junior version of the Stella Prize at some stage, ie for books written for children and teens? 

Our current priority for the Schools Program is to continue lobbying for change on school curricula and promoting greater diversity in the range of books students are exposed to. We put a lot of work into our annually updated Education Kit to support teachers and enable them to address these issues in the classroom. But in the future, anything’s possible! 

Thank you, Bec, for your thoughtful answers to the questions! 

If you'd like to learn more about the Stella Prize Schools Program, follow this link: 

http://thestellaprize.com.au/schools-program/about-the-schools-program/

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Reading and Rereading Now

I'm carrying in my tote bag the new novel by Louis Sachar, Fuzzy Mud, this one aimed at younger readers - mid to late primary school. The heroine is in fifth grade and there is an issue with something mysterious a local lab is brewing. So far, quite readable. If I can get an hour or two to myself I should be able to finish it, then I'll share my thoughts with you.

Also carrying Blood Queen by Rhiannon Hart, which the author kindly sent me from England via Amazon. I've started it and I'll say at this point that you really do have to have read the others to understand what 's happening, so if you haven't, why not read them while you wait for my review? 

I've just picked up my battered copy of Harry Turtledove's AU Shakespeare novel, Ruled Britannia from the pile by my bed. I find it easier going than some of his other novels, as it's only seen from two viewpoints, Shakespeare and Spanish playwright and soldier Lope De Vega. As I said - battered. I've read it over and over!

And as I have my iPad in my tote bag, I've got hundreds more books in case I want a break from review copies! I'm rereading Dog Wizard by Barbara Hambly, the third in her Windrose Chronicles, which I seem to be enjoying more this time around. I'm being firm with myself and rereading this before I buy the newer Antryg Windrose novellas now available on iBooks. The author has self published quite a lot of ebook shorts and novellas set in her most popular universes, but so far these are the only ones I can find on iBooks and I'm not keen to go to Smashwords and offer up my card details, even if it does mean being able to read more Ben January adventures. I will just have to be patient. If you haven't yet discovered the delightful Antryg Windrose do get a copy of The Silent Tower - especially if Tom Baker is your favourite Doctor. Barbara Hambly is a Tom Baker Doctor fan girl and Antryg is Doctor 4, with cheap beads instead of a scarf! 

And I'm starting again with To Kill A Mockingbird, also on my iPad, before deciding if I am willing to take a chance on Go Set A Watchman, the "new" Harper Lee novel, written first but set twenty years later. I am not sure if I'm quite ready to see Atticus Finch as a racist and bigot who is fighting integration. I know he's based on the author's father, but Mr Lee STARTED as a racist and changed his mind while she was writing the book.

There have been some positive reviews, even by people who loved the first book, but others have just not been able to cope with it. I have been known to be unable to wait, especially now I can just hit the "buy" button on iBooks. And the thing about ebooks is that you can't give away any that you didn't enjoy.  So, again, being firm! 

There are some online pieces about the celebration in her home town, with public readings, parties and people costuming as Atticus! Go take a look, it's delightful. 

What do you think, readers? Are you planning to read it? Already reading? 

Monday, July 13, 2015

In The Skin Of A Monster by Kathryn Barker. Sydney: Allen And Unwin,2015



Three years ago, Alice's identical twin sister took a gun to school and shot seven people, including her boyfriend. Since then, the small outback town where they live hasn't been the same. Nobody has overcome their grief - least of all Alice, who wears the killer's face and has to cope with the anger of the others in the town. Then one day, after her return from time in therapy, Alice sees  on the road   a ghostly figure  she thinks must be her sister. Going after it, she finds she has swapped bodies and is now in a land of dreams - and nightmares. Everybody's nightmares... 

This could easily have been another YA contemporary tale of overcoming a truly horrible event, and it would have been good in its own right. But the author has gone a step further. She has taken us to where the dream versions of people from this world are wandering around, trying to survive among the monsters from people's dreams, including many versions of the killer who had taken away their children and friends, where a girl from this world needs to overcome her own inner monsters in a way not possible in the real world. 

This is a debut novel from a promising new writer. 

It's a fascinating premise and makes a very good piece of horror fiction as well as a psychological thriller. For what could be more terrifying than we can imagine ourselves? 

"Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland" will never be the same again! 

Available at all good bookshops from July 29!


Friday, July 10, 2015

Phyllis Wong And The Waking Of The Wizard by Geoffrey McSkimming.Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2015


Phyllis Wong is a magician, like her great-grandfather, Wallace Wong, a successful stage magician who disappeared in 1936. She lives with her father Harvey Wong and her fox terrier Daisy, in a building named for her ancestor, training herself as a conjuror. A basement full of Wallace's props and costumes helps, though she has a favourite shop. Her neighbours are a colourful assortment of characters, from a belly dancer to a police inspector.

In the last novel, Phyllis Wong And The Return Of The Conjuror, she discovered that Wallace Wong was still alive and well and travelling through time(or, rather, Time), in a process he calls Transiting - and that she, too, had the ability to do this. There's no TARDIS. If you have the ability you can do it, with the help of some stairs and an object from the Time you want to visit, and you can take a guest with you - in Phyllis's case, this is her friend Clement, a boy who loves over-the-top disguises and playing zombie fighter games online. If you don't have the ability, you can run up and down the stairs all you like and you'll just get tired.  That novel was about a lost play by Shakespeare and some suspiciously new but absolutely authentic First Folios being auctioned off in the present day. There was some time travel involved.

This novel involves more time travel, a Paris theatre in 1931, an evil ventriloquist and Myrddyn Emrys, aka Merlin. Wallace Wong does make an appearance but leaves the story early, hoping that his great grand-daughter will find Merlin, not only the greatest magician of all time, but the inventor of the TimePocket used by Wallace and Phyllis. As the story continues, it becomes vital that she does find Merlin or the world might just come to an end, not with a bang but with the Great Whimpering...

In some ways this series is very different from Geoffrey McSkimming's Cairo Jim Chronicles, in which an Indiana Jones-like archaeologist had adventures in various parts of the world, with his companions, a Shakespeare-quoting macaw and a telepathic camel who enjoyed reading western novels. There was even a kind of Marcus Brody in those novels. The heroes of this series are a young girl and her friend and the time is clearly now, with the Internet and mobile phones, while you never could tell when any individual story was set in Cairo Jim; a couple of them had mobile phones while in another of them a character remembers something that happened in 1910. 

But there is the same over-the-top whimsy, the same humour. Wallace Wong keeps making bizarre comparisons and, when Phyllis doesn't get them, exclaiming, "Oh, I know what I am meaning!"  And there is also a message; in Cairo Jim, the gentle message tended to be about countries that appropriated the cultural heritage of other countries, through their museums. In this one, interestingly, a message of sorts comes from the lips of the villain! He's right, but also wrong. Read it and find out what it is.

It's probably better if you have read at least one of the two earlier books, but it isn't necessary. I haven't read the first one. 

Recommended for good readers from about ten upwards.